For the intrepid traveller, it’s easy to get off the beaten path in the semi-desert of the Karoo or across the rugged hills of the Wild Coast. By the same token, the generally good infrastructure makes a road trip in South Africa much more accessible than in many of its neighbours. Here are five of the best road trip routes to experience South Africa in your own rental car.
The Garden Route is certainly South Africa’s best-known road trip route, and not without good cause. It comprises an unfailingly picturesque 200km stretch of the N2 highway between Mossel Bay in the Western Cape and the Storms River Mouth on the Western fringes of the Eastern Cape.
The Garden Route is so-known for its verdant and varied vegetation and it gives easy access to a number of sublime beaches, dense mountain forests, picturesque lagoons and lakes, with a plethora of outdoor activities on offer.
The enchanting Knysna Forest is a popular spot for camping, hiking and mountain biking and home to a notoriously elusive population of forest elephants. The coastal town of the same name is renowned for its annual Oyster Festival and stylish boutique shops. And not to mention the excellent beaches.
Best for: beaches and outdoor activities
How long: 4 days
Tailor-made trip: If sitting in a car doesn't sound too appealing to you, how about cycling the Garden Route?
Not to miss: Kayak the Storms River and explore the Tsitsikamma National Park.
Our favourite accommodation: Forest Edge close to Knysna. Ideal if you want to be close to the forest itself, these traditional two-bedroom woodcutters‘ cottages have verandas built in the vernacular tin-roofed style, and have been upgraded for extra comfort with good linen and fittings. The cottages are private and romantic. Forest walks and cycling trails start from the cottages, from where you can walk to rock pools and waterfalls.
Although it’s just a few hours’ drive from the pulsating urban hub of Johannesburg, the Waterberg Region doesn't make it onto most South African travel itineraries, and that’s a large part of its appeal.
Tucked away in Limpopo Province and known to locals as Africa’s Eden, this region comprises soaring mountain peaks, antediluvian sandstone rock formations, golden savannah plains, dense riparian forests and plunging river valleys.
The Waterberg Meander is a 350km self-drive route that takes road trippers right through the heart of the Waterberg Biosphere and incorporates many of its highlights, including the exclusive Welgevonden Game Reserve and the stunning Marakele National Park.
Along the route, there are also a number of community projects, cultural and historical sites, and some of the finest examples of the stellar Waterberg vistas.
Best for: game viewing
How long: 5 days
3. The Wild Coast, Eastern Cape
As you drive across this region’s rolling hills, along its jagged coastlines or veer off the N2 onto the gravel roads that cut inland, you’ll often have the sense that little has changed here in the past hundred years. The hillsides are dotted with turquoise rondavels (round huts topped with thatched roofs) and small pastoral farming plots.
Formerly known as the Transkei during apartheid, this region has a rich and often bloody history and birthed struggle icons including Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko, both of whose lives can be revisited at a number of local heritage sites.
The Wild Coast also boasts the most idyllic and unspoilt beaches to be found anywhere in South Africa – at backpacking paradises like Coffee Bay or Port St Johns, you may find more cows lazing on the sand than people.
Best for: pristine coastline and rich cultural heritage
How long: 7 days
Our favourite accommodation: Morgan Bay Hotel - This friendly, well-run place overlooks a gorgeous beach and is one of the best hotels along the Wild Coast, particularly for family holidays. It offers good food and fresh, airy rooms; a caravan park is also available. Rates include breakfast and dinner. Another draw is that it’s only 76km from East London, all on tar roads.
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4. Route 62, Western Cape
Route 62 is so-named for the R62 road that cuts across the countless lovely vineyards of the Cape Winelands, through dramatic mountain passes and into the heart of the Little Karoo, a wild and dusty region of open scrubland, livestock farms and quaint rural towns.
Route 62 is considerably less popular and less developed than its coastal counterpart the Garden Route, but it has gained a cult following amongst South Africans for its beauty, untamed eccentricity and distinct lack of traffic.
The historic spa town of Montagu is well worth a visit for its pretty colonial architecture and hot springs, while the charmingly arty Barrydale has a number of good roadside cafés, including the Diesel & Crème Diner, known for its milkshakes and nostalgic American memorabilia.
The best of the raw semi-desert landscapes and spectacular star-studded night skies are to be found in the Karoo National Park, while the Breede River Valley is a favourite for riverside camping and kayaking excursions.
Best for: wine and charming rural towns
How long: 3 days
Not to miss: A game drive from Oudtshoorn marveling at the fascinating wildlife but also the stunning views of the Swartberg mountains.
Our favourite accommodation: Aasvoelkrans Guest Farm in Montagu - Set in a pretty part of town, these four exceptionally imaginative garden rooms are housed in a guesthouse situated on a farm, with Arab horses grazing in the fields. There is also a two-bedroomed self-catering cottage suitable for a family or larger group.
5. The Panorama Route, Mpumalanga
As the name would suggest, this route, which takes you along the highest tar road in South Africa, offers spectacular views of the area’s mountains, canyons and valleys. Eagles soar overhead and the sound of thundering waterfalls punctuates the stillness.
Fish for yellowtail or carp in the tranquil Ohrigstad Dam Nature Reserve or walk through the mist-covered indigenous forest above Blyde River Canyon, which is the third largest canyon in the world.
The history of this region is as rich as the mineral deposits that sparked a gold rush here in 1873. Relive this history at Pilgrim’s Rest, a former gold mining town that is now a national museum where you can try your hand at gold panning.
Best for: dramatic vistas and nature walks
How long: 2 days
Not to miss: Explore the third-largest canyon in the world on a guided cruise past the Kadishi Tufa waterfall and the marvelous mountain peaks.
Our favourite accommodation: Graskop Hotel - One of the nicest places to stay on the Escarpment, with a personal and relaxed atmosphere. Though unprepossessing from the outside, it actually has a very stylish interior of retro furniture, African baskets, fabrics and sculptures. The rooms, some of which are in garden wings, are airy and decorated with simplicity and flair. Most importantly, there is a swimming pool.